Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Kinda Makes You Want to Spawn: On Gail Z. Martin's The Dread

I'm going to get this out there now: SPOILER ALERT!! If you have not finished The Dread proceed at your own peril!

Stock photo
My friend made a comment to me once while we were watching a baby playing at the Riverside Mall in New Orleans. He was adorable, toddling around between his mommy and daddy. My friend turned to me and said, "It kinda makes you want to spawn. Immediately." That is the sentiment I left The Dread with, along with the profound knowledge that we will not be seeing our friends Tris, Kiara, Jonmarc, Ban Soterius, Carroway, Carina and Aidaine for quite some time. For now, the Winter Kingdoms are behind us, and for those who went through the War of Unmaking, hopefully the worst is behind them as well. Tris and Kiara are back in Shekerishet, Jonmarc and Carina have their newborns, Aidaine and Kolin are together at last, and all is at peace. I would be more than happy to host a re-read of the Chronicles of the Necromancer (among the other massive projects I undertake in the coming years) for the enjoyment of all who found this series several years ago and for those who are just picking it up for the first time.

At the end of The Sworn, author and frequent Conn panel member Gail Z. Martin created a tension that held up until the day The Dread was released--a whole-year-and a-half later. Every time I laid eyes on that section of my shelves, my anticipation for the next novel rose, and Martin did not disappoint.

We've all read the book right? Is a synopsis really necessary? Thought not. In that case, lets jump right into it. For your reading pleasure, my responses to the following subjects in The Dread. Warning: I am nothing if not honest, so if this review isn't gushing with praise, its because I tend to find faults in even my favorite author's works. No author is perfect. We'll save the fan girl drooling for when I meet Gail Z. Martin, which I will! I swear it!

Blood Magic: 

An issue that kept resurfacing was the seemingly unlimited supply of blood magic from which Temnotta's Dark Summoner could draw upon. Scaith made sure to have all of his bases covered, even if they didn't know it: the Black Robes, or Shanthadura's priests, used blood magic to keep their pact with their dark goddess. Bukka, the soul-hallowing butcher that preyed upon the prostitutes in Principality, and the son of the Summoner King in Margolan. Cwyne is able, even as a baby, to sense the flow and tap into it. With Cwyne's power under his belt, Scaith (I imagine its supposed to read like "scythe", but which I read in almost Japanese style: Sai-th) would have no problem bringing the Winter Kingdoms to their knees, using the puppet king in Isencroft (Alvior) as a front. What he did not count on was that their lack of reconn meant that he was unsure of what he was up against. He knew there was a Summoner in Margolan. He knew the political climate of Isencroft. He did not know that two different types of "Regent magic" were at work: Kiara was able to harness her Regent magic and channel it through the mage lens. Tris was able to defeat Scaith on the Plains of Spirit by sacrificing himself in the ancient ways of the kings of Margolan. As usual, Martin employs the useful tactic of pre-arming her people with an extensive array of catch-alls. What is different about this story is the real, real sense that without these special gifts, all would be lost or extremely difficult. There is a key difference this time in that Aidaine is run to ground almost immediately only after helping Berry once in the castle against a hollowed spirit. After that, the Hojun priests of Eastmark are useful for assisting Jonmarc in on Principality's shores, but were it not for the Hojuns, Principality would be left predominately to the defense of humans, vayash-moru, vyrkin and mages with little in the way of specialized help. And for Martin, that just ain't right.

Also, in a completely undrandomized plot, each kingdom fights a battle suited to the specialties of the region: the Dark Summoner battles Tris at Margolan instead of increasing the suspense by sending Scaith after the helpless folk of Isencroft, where the new seat of his empire was to be, where the spirit of the mage-heir of Margolan fled with his mother, and where the pregnant queen of a joint throne is now clearly on the battlefield. No, no, Scaith's ego leads him to Margolan; the shifter mage battles the lord of Dark Haven and his changeling brethren at Principality; the Temnottan navy that lands in Isencroft expected to find a half-starved shamble army waiting for them, but was instead rewarded with only a slightly more resolute form of resistence. What kept the majority of the battle from turning bad was Kiara's regent magic. Had she been unable to return, Isencroft might have fallen very easily. Cam's refusal to allow his brother a safe haven in Brunfenn was also a huge shifting point, as without that base, Alvior could not possibly hope to reach inland.

Blood magic is crucial to the magic system of this particular fantasy series, as like most systems, the Flow has two sides: light and dark (can't qualify one without the other). The magic system relies on the flow of magic that runs almost like a renewable resource beneath the earth, like a series of fault lines along the tectonic plates. This analogy is fitting because the Flow seems to be stronger at places that sit directly above its influence, those barrows, shrines to the Lady and old places that make accessing the flow (and working magic) easier. However, the seasons, like the tide of the oceans, also influence the effectiveness of certain types of magic. There is a huge issue surrounding the keeping of hearth magic, such as the feast of Sohan, the Feast of Change. It is during the Sohan feast that Tris makes his journey into the Underrealm. Three different types of magic align themselves to keep Tris safe: the oath of the Sworn, the adoption of Tris into the Sworn (which never comes back up again), and the Sohan night. The rise and ebb of the Flow influences blood magic as well, and though it requires a lot of work, blood magic is quite a bit more effective at crushing out opposition than light magic. Light magic has far more rules for protecting the soul of the caster, where blood mages don't worry too terribly much about it. My one criticism of the types of magic employed in the Winter Kingdoms is that unlike several other forms of magic, blood magic requires the casters to be assuredly depraved, seeking power for its own sake knowing that they are twisting themselves to pieces. Without a certain level of cognitive dissonance, it takes a deeply disturbed person to use blood magic, and to keep using it requires the subjugation of sanity entirely. There seems to be no middle ground for questionable actions. Tris' questionable act almost cost him his life, and I don't want to be the one that gets tossed under a bus, but had Tris died on the battlefield, using the last vestiges of his power to save Margolan, the "sacrifice" he made that upset everyone might have carried more weight. However, I greatly admire the way Martin set us up to believe that Nexus was a fickle anthame. We believe for a long time that the sword would steal a breath of Tris' soul, not realizing that breath of his soul in Nexus might be the only thing that could bring him back to the realm of the living. By violating my expectations (and I suppose I am a bit of a dark reader), I am happier to reconcile my criticsm and come away from it thoroughly pleased.

Spawning in "Interesting Times"

If I had to have a criticism of Martin's style, it is that Tris and Kiara are royal parents, but don't really act like  it. This may just be that I am more accustomed to royal parents being rather distant and aloof. Kiara is tolerably unhappy about leaving her baby in the hands of care-takers while she ventures into Isencroft to take her father's throne. However, had I not known before that Gail Martin was a mother, I certainly would have been able to put money on it after reading the scenes involving Kiara's hesitation for leaving Cwyne. She knows her feelings on the subject are selfish at best, but I also feel them to be highly romanticized, especially Tris' feelings towards Cwyne, whom he barely knew before he left for battle again. If a queen is expected to be less...involved in her baby's upbringing, a king is even less so, yet Tris risks his life for his son. Not the heir to his throne, because we are unsure of whether or not Cwyne is mentally capable of ruling, but for his child, a trait that very few kings and queens have as human beings. For upper-class people, Kiara and Tris have very middle class feelings for their children. This is not a bad thing. Put down hat flaming bag of poo! I don't think giving middle class feelings to upper class characters is a bad thing. However, I was taken aback by this shift. I think the most disturbing thing I've ever seen in history is the treatment of royal children, especially if anyone has ever seen The King's Speech. High expectations coupled with little parental guidance can hardly create healthy adults, and we know that the setting of the Winter Kingdoms can be "interesting" enough without adding mental and physical abuse to the list of issues. While I instinctively took the description of Kiara and Cwyne's relationship as "romanticized", I eventually came to feel that is "natural" in ways that real-life royalty could stand to learn from.

 That having been said, you know one of Martin's characters can't have a baby without the others quickly following suit. Jonmarc and Carina have two beautiful baby girls. My issue with this: Carina was a twin. She should not have had twins. Even if the chance of multiples had been high on both sides, that should have skipped a generation. How do I know this: I am a twin. The chances of a twin having twins is small (not impossible, especially of having fraternal versus identical twins), but the chances of Carina's children having twins would have been much, much higher. Why was it that Carina had to have twins? Because it is believed that she ended up with her rare healing abilities because she was a twin, but if Martin had been paying attention to her own characterization, she would have remembered that Carina and Cam's exile came from 1) the fact that twins were considered a rare, freakish occurance in backwater Isencroft, and 2) that fact that she could heal. While Carina is not ashamed of her abilities, the fear of having twins--thus continuing a legacy of freakishness--probably should have bothered her a bit more considering she might have had some mental trauma associated with her exile. Granted, Carina has a stronger character than, oh say, Aidaine. It certainly would have been more believable than Aidaine's crap excuse for running away from Kolin. The mental trauma of having been a freak in her own family should have created a great deal of drama around having multiples, and her power to heal she may even have regarded as a curse. However, these are small details.

Another small detail is Jonmarc's comment that he's teaching them to fight, despite the fact that Jonmarc has sworn to put his warrior past behind him, building a more peaceful future for daughters. Teaching them how to fight is not something a battle-weary father declares in their infancy. For a lower-class man (and he was a farm boy in Margolan before he was ever a fighter in Eastmark or Nargi), that is very upper-class mentality: living through your children. "My child will play football because I did," or "My child will obviously be vocally inclined because I am," is a horrible thing to expect of any child, not to mention training them to be soldiers from early on. I don't expect Jonmarc to be unreasonable; his children should know how to defend themselves. After all, they are the future heirs of Dark Haven, responsible for maintaining the Truce between the living and the undead. I just think that Jonmarc should not have declared himself retired if he did not truly feel the danger so very near that he now has to train his daughters. I would have thought better of Jonmarc, and that he could go through life thinking he was giving his children a better life than he had.

This criticism does nothing to quell the totally natural maternal feelings I had toward reading Jonmarc's homecoming, which was as heart warming and sweet as any that could have been asked for. More dedicated parents could not be found in all of Dark Haven, and I was deeply moved by the entire scene.

Herp-A-Derp I'm Just a Whore: Aidaine, Kolin and the Problem with Vampires

I am a huge reader of vampire fiction. That having been said, I'm also very picky.

I have never really understood the purpose of Aidaine's character. From the outset, I have considered her barely there. Because of the absolutely solid connection of all the characters in the plot, I had a hard time understanding why Aidaine came from out of nowhere. She was a serroquete in Nargi in The Sworn. "But wait, Angry Reviewer," you say, "Jonmarc Vahanian was unconnected to the original four main characters: Tris, Soterius, Carroway and Hartuck." And to that I would say, "No," because he was Hartuck's old smuggler friend who was originally hired to help Tris and his friends get to Dhasson. All of the characters who were seemingly unconnected to begin with were never that far removed at all. One day I'll draw a map that illustrates how directly connected all the characters are except Aidaine. Even Jair is ridiculously connected to the main characters even though he never popped up until The Sworn. "Hang on a second, you crazy ho'," you say, "The Sworn was meant to be a stand alone novel." To that I say, "Gail couldn't have it both ways." You cannot have a stand-alone novel continue a story. What you gain in the attention of new readers you lose in distracting veteran readers. I have never been connected to the new characters the way I have been connected to the old ones.

Moving on. Aidaine's character seems to me to be one of those catch-alls. Yes, she delivers a message to principality, yes she saves the gang from Dark Haven in their fight against the Durim, yes she helped Kolin move on from the death of Elsbet, but dang it yall, she doesn't do a whole lot else except irritate me. Martin went out of her way to create two stunningly powerful female characters, Kiara and Carina, along with a slew of other powerful lesser characters. Where does "I'm-Just-A-Whore" girl fit in? The vampire plot of course. Where else does a weak female character fit in?

Kolin's union with Aidaine starts them down the path towards a romantic and ever-lasting love affair. Why? Because Kolin is a vampire. This is where I start having more problems as a picky reader of vampire fiction. My idea of vampire fiction is like the transition from the living to the dead, "...messy." I would point you in the direction of Lumley's vampires for further reference. Vampires are very scary creatures and to my mind are meant to be very scary creatures. This does not mean that the idea of what I like to call "the domesticated vampire" has not worked before. It has, and Amelia Atwater-Rhodes is by far the best example. Anne Rice is another, but her vampires are different for different reasons. I do no liken Martin to Meyers (I'm not cruel). However, the domesticated vampires of Martin's story definitely embody the romanticized vampire trope, and its one I have a very hard time with. The fact that Kolin had to turn Aidaine into a vampire because her stupid butt went off for no better reason than self-consciousness to the warrens, got trapped by Buka, got sealed up by fearful taxpayers and then contracted the plague is simplistic, unoriginal and unnecessary. The union between vampire and fledgling is often as a last resort, but it is also often used as a form of rape in many of the better pieces of vampire fiction. Since it couldn't be rape, it had to be as a last resort: the plague. Kolin loved Aidaine enough to give her the dark gift. Alucard did something similar for Ceres Victoria in Hellsing and she fought her reality for months before accepting. Aidaine's biggest concern after her transition is that she's "Just a whore." If you're a vampire, I very much doubt that should be the biggest thing on your mind. A healthy person would have probably wondered what made her better than any of the other dying victims of the plague. A healthy character might have found the idea of being dead and still upright to be slightly disturbing. Still, all Aidaine could think of was, "I'm wearing a lady's dress. I'm just a whore." To that I say again, herp-a-freakin'-derp! Weak female characters are always the brides of powerful, sexy, humane vampires or the rape victims of ugly, nasty evil vampires that always cry, "You cursed me! I'm ruined! Yes, I'll live forever, yes you love me, but I hate you!" and then repeatedly stab Anders Hove. Its been done. It'll be done again, and I probably won't read that either. The transition of Aidaine was moving, and Kolin is a  good man, but the whole thing would have made the book shorter and allowed for the return of Carroway to the plot, who had even less of a role to play than he did in The Sworn. He didn't even have a speaking part this time. In fact, he wasn't even there! He was stuck at Dark Haven and was gone by the time Jonmarc got back! Aidaine got to open her stupid mouth, but Carroway and Macaria get swept under the rug. He was loyal to Tris from the very beginning, and Martin mangled his hand so that he might never play again, creating real, honest to goodness feelings of despair for a character whose profession requires he play or be good-looking enough to get away without being talented, even if he was the personal best friend of the King. Why, after all of that, does she leave him out? I'll be taking that question to Gail Z. Martin if I ever get to meet her.

Overall Response

Now that you all are brandishing pointed sticks, I'll get to the positive stuff. Gail Z. Martin spins a wonderful tail of suspense and drama. I have said before that my vested interest in the characters in key to my enjoyment of the story, and Martin has made me extremely interested in the future of her characters, so much so that I continue to ignore some of her more obvious flaws. To me, she is still a new writer, and she is drawing on all of her influences, as all writers do. I believe her desire to please everyone is getting in the way of her ultimate success as a writer. I believe that Gail Z. Martin is one of the best writers of fantasy dialogue that I have had the pleasure of reading. She captures the scenes in her novels with active description and vivid details without becoming too bogged down. I had to stop myself from reading The Dread so that I wouldn't read it all in one sitting. Knowing that we won't get another one of these for a while made me more cautious. I was moved to tears when Jonmarc came home to his babies for the first time, and I was guilty right along side him that he could not be there for their birth. I hope against all the portents that Cwyne will be able to take the throne, and I know that Tris and Kiara will love him even if he cannot rule. It would take so much pressure off of Tris and Kiara to split the crown again, but as we know from experience, these things are never that simple. Kenver will make his mother proud (by the way, I didn't even want to get started on Talwyn's death because I'm still not over it. Poor Jair...). Temnotta, hopefully, will never be tempted to take the Winter Kingdoms en masse again. Its all over now, though, but the waiting, and hoping that the future generations of the Winter Kingdoms will have it easier than their parents. I very much doubt it though. We have some time to stew over it, though.

As for the author, Gail Z. Martin, I owe my sincere thanks and gratitude. Her novels are gems, and a real treat to add to the collection of the casual (or fanatical) fantasy library. I strongly encourage everyone who hasn't to go back and read The Chronicles of the Necromancer. I know I have steep criticism, but an author like Martin knows her real success lies in that I read her work, and that I am taking the time to tell you about it. Hopefully, because of what I've said, not in spite of it, you'll go read her other works too. I look forward to reading more of Martin's work in the future.

Join us on Facebook! The Winter Kingdoms is Gail Z. Martin's Facebook page, but you can join a bunch of interesting casual readers over at The Chronicles of the Necromancer (By Gail Z. Martin) is Awesome. We talk about the books, other books and a lot of other stuff. 

For everyone that's interested, all of Martin's books are available on Audible in audio book form.

Stock photo from Amazon.com

No comments:

Post a Comment